Nobody Left to Hate

Gunning For A Solution To School Shootings "Cooperative learning" promises to help everyone get along

Nobody Left to Hate

Elliot Aronson (Freeman, 2000)

All sorts of simple solutions have been offered for the problem of school shootings, such as the one at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado last year. They include installing metal detectors and surveillance cameras, hiring guards, identifying students who might be "going mental," reinstating mandatory prayers, and posting the Ten Commandments on schoolhouse walls. None of these measures is likely to do much good. Does anyone, for example, really believe that kids who kill their classmates and teachers have never heard "Thou shalt not kill?"

Stanford University psychologist Elliot Aronson, Ph.D., offers a better solution in Nobody Left to Hate: Teaching Compassion After Columbine (Freeman, 2000). Aronson is an eminent social psychologist and an engaging and lucid writer. His book is one that every educator and parent should read.

Aronson holds that school shootings cannot, for the most part, be explained away as the acts of deranged minds. Neither Eric Harris nor Dylan Klebold, the gunmen at Columbine, was psychotic. Instead, Aronson suggests that the chief villain is the social environment that characterizes most high schools, including the one in Littleton.

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He reminds us that high school is a place where bullying, teasing, threats, humiliation, sarcasm, physical abuse and social isolation are commonplace. The shooters are usually among those who are tormented daily by their peers, sometimes with the implicit approval of adults. Killing, then, is their act of revenge. A 17-year-old commented, "I think that what [Harris and Klebold] did...was wrong, but a person can take only so much torture." Aronson does not suggest that torment justifies murder, but he believes that the hostile atmosphere of most high schools is "a major root cause of the recent shootings."

He also thinks we can improve what is now a hostile, intolerant atmosphere. Unpopular students can be taught social skills that will make them more appealing, and popular students can learn to be more tolerant of those different from themselves. There are a number of ways of doing this, but the one he clearly favors is the jigsaw method that he and his students developed over 30 years ago.

The jigsaw method is a form of cooperative learning. The class is divided into groups of, say, five students to study some topic. Each student in the group researches one aspect of the topic and then shares that information with group members. Everyone in the group is tested on all five subtopics, so no one can afford to ridicule, ignore or threaten any group member. You may think Joe is weird, but you need him in order to score well on the test; antagonizing him won't help you do that.

The result is a shifting from hostility to tolerance: Outsiders no longer feel so far outside; insiders feel less smug. The membership of these groups changes routinely, so the students are constantly interacting with people they might ordinarily avoid. Do enough of this kind of thing, Aronson says, and soon there 'is "nobody left to hate."

Some people complain that cooperative teaching methods such as the jigsaw do not prepare students for what one journalist called "the big ugly world" of cutthroat competition. Aronson counters that there is so much competition in a teenager's life that this is like a "350-pound man worrying that using an artificial sweetener in his morning coffee might make him too thin."

Cooperative teaching methods are not the most effective ways for students to learn academic subjects, but if devoting a small part of each school day to these methods would dramatically improve a school's atmosphere and prevent replays of the Columbine incident, it makes sense for schools to try it, right?

Only they don't. For the most part, schools aren't working to improve their atmosphere, perhaps because, Aronson suggests weakly, educators simply haven't heard of these methods. I believe the reason is that we as a society do not care what the atmosphere in our schools is like, just as we don't care whether students learn to read. To care is to take effective action. Instead, we post Commandments.

Adapted by Ph.D.

Paul Chance, Ph.D., is PT's book review editor.

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